Monday Morning: A Closet Drama

Dramatis Personae:

  • Middle aged man, driving a bronze SUV, in sunglasses, windows up.
  • Cyclist

Cyclist wends her way down Wilson Street, Darlington. She’s thinking about the craziness of her life at the moment. Past. Present. Future. Thoughts can be represented with interpretive dance. Although it is 8am the traffic is light and she’s making good time. The sun in shining. The birds are singing. Life’s good. She’s wearing a bright red coat and a bright green helmet. She has second thoughts about her outfit: she thinks she probably looks like a Christmas tree. She comes to a roundabout and sees an SUV coming up the street to her left. She thinks unconsciously ‘no worries’; she’s got right of way two times over because he’s on her left and he’s not even at the roundabout yet. She enters the roundabout. She realises that the SUV is not stopping.

Cyclist: (loudly) Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.

She slows down so the impact is not dramatic. He hits her. Luckily he’d slowed to turn the corner too. Her bike scratches the front of his car, but she comes off the bike but does not fall over. There’s a short standoff. Cyclist looks directly at the driver desiring acknowledgement of his wrong and an apology. The driver gestures impatiently for the cyclist to move on.  

Cyclist: (Loudly, gesticulating wildly) Aren’t you even going to apologise for almost running me over?

The driver, unresponsive, reverses a little in order to get around the cyclist and speeds off down the street. Cyclist looks around for recognition of this injustice, and the impertinence and gall of the man in the unnecessarily large car. Nobody is around. Cyclist rides off thinking how glad she was to not be hurt, how much she wanted to kick the car, but also glad that she is that she had restraint, because by not kicking the car she retains the moral high ground. The second wave of thoughts can also be represented with interpretive dance, but ideally dancers would have a costume change to signal that the mood of the thoughts had darkened somewhat since the incident.

THE END.

——-

Playwright’s statement: This is a follow up to Wednesday Morning, a representation of the possible harmony between Cyclists and Pedestrians in future. This drama perhaps represents the particularly toxic dimension of the current relationship between Cyclists and Drivers in Sydney from the Cyclist’s perspective.


Wednesday Morning: A Closet Drama

Dramatis Personae:

  • Grandpa – MID 60s
  • Grandaughter – 5 or 6
  • Cyclist

The intersection of a bike path and pedestrian crossing. Grandpa is walking his grandaughter to school. They approach the pedestrian crossing at the same time as the cyclist. Cyclist stops. Grandpa and Granddaughter cross bikepath and road. As they are crossing the road the dialogue starts.

GRANDAUGHTER: Bicyclists stop for pedestrians.

GRANDPA: Sometimes.

Cyclist rides out of earshot.

THE END.

********

Playwright’s Statement:

I wrote this play because I feel it captures the possibility for the public opinion of cyclists to change in future, even if not in my lifetime. As a cyclist I am constantly confronted by angry pedestrians and motorists who believe that cyclists are there simply to make their day more difficult. Here the hope that things will change is represented as an intergenerational possibility; public opinion can change, but change is gradual. Perhaps cyclists need to be ok with this. We cannot hope for the attitude to change straight away, but perhaps take comfort in the knowledge that it might someday. The urtext is, of course, King Lear. Lear dramatises the transition of the kingdom; in Wednesday Morning we see the roads transitioning to the cyclists, “The younger rises when the old doth fall” says Edmund. Except my play expresses the hope that things will turn out better in the end, and whether or not Lear is a fundamentally hopeful play is debatable. Adapting Lear is a monolithic task for any playwright, I guess this is why I chose to get it out of the way early in my career. My main aim in adapting Lear was to strip back Shakespeare’s main plot to its bare bones, and represent it in a shorter form in line with the desires of contemporary audiences. I might add that this is verbatim theatre; there is a kernel of truth within it and it is that kernel that I aimed to represent in the work. I hope you enjoy the show.


Monsters vs John McCallum

I spent the afternoon of Sunday 28th, November at John McCallum’s Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture and at Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. And, here I’d like to make comment on a surprising cross over between these two events.

Firstly, on paper, the two events seem entirely unrelated. McCallum’s lecture (A summary of which can be found here) called for a spectacular and grotesque turn in Australian theatre, a celebration of difficulty and excess, rigorous reimagining of the Canon, a revival of lost plays, all to happen alongside the continuous development of new voices; he suggested that audiences who don’t want to be “theatre-fucked” by this spectacular, affecting future-theatre should stay at home or go see a film instead. Incidentally, I went and saw Monsters right after McCallum’s lecture. This, I can assure you, was in no way causally linked to the lecture itself. To lay my cards on the table: I am happy, if not eager, to go places to be fucked (theatre or otherwise).  So, my trip to the cinema to see Monsters was purely coincidental. Monsters is a low-budget, sci-fi horror drama set in the borderlands between Mexico and the US, in about 2017. The premise of the film is this: Giant Squid-like alien creatures have invaded the borderlands and the area itself- “the infected zone” -is fenced off on both the Mexican and US sides, in between is a war zone where the US Military attempt to keep the Aliens under control. Sam (Whitney Able) is injured in a Mexico, she is the daughter of a rich media tycoon. A photographer who works for Sam’s father, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is given the task of delivering her safely back to America before the escalation of the war between the military and the Aliens. And, for a range of more-or-less plausible reasons, they miss the last ferry home and in order to get back to the US, they have to pass through the “infected zone”. The film is Sam and Andrew’s journey through the dangerous, alien infested borderlands between Mexico and the US.

Like I said, on paper McCallum’s lecture and Monsters have very little in common.

So, bare with me as I try and draw a link between them. The decline of 19th Century Spectacular Theatre was largely due to the development of Motion Picture (Spectacular Theatre’s heyday was in the early-to-mid 19th Century and the first private screening of a motion picture projection is dated at 1895). The two forms dovetail in surprising ways: the ambitions of the spectacular theatre maker were more or less shared by early film makes such as the Lumiere Brothers. Both camps wanted to construct a realistic world, the very spectacular existence of which, would elicit some kind of emotional response from an audience (be it shock, bewilderment, fear or wonder). Spectacular Theatre was even the testing ground for technologies that were important precursors to early cinema such as the Magic Lantern. Needless to say, the film makers won in the end. In the theatre, machines required to achieve the spectacle in real-time were so clunky that often plays had to be stopped mid-scene in order to set up the big “illusion”, the noise of the machines themselves often drowned out the dialogue, and, while electricity was installed in the theatres by the late 19th cenutury, it was not very versatile. 19th Century Spectacular theatre was, in a word, cumbersome. Meanwhile, all the Lumiere Brothers had to do was to film a train travelling towards the audience and everyone was screaming and jumping from their seats in terror, awe and amazement.

So, film studios became workshops for the spectacular, and the theatre became a place for austere psychological and emotional experimentation in form and content. Now, of course, this is an all-too-clear-cut distinction, but in relative terms this distinction between mainstream theatre and film in the 20th century it more or less holds true.

Yesterday, I witnessed a radical reversal of these basic principles. McCallum argued convincingly for a neo-spectacular dramatic theatre, drawing on the ambitions of the 19th century practitioner, the philosophy of Meyerhold and the aesthetics of performance art (or Postdramatic Theatre). Edwards’s Monsters is being heralded as a new wave in sci-fi film making largely because it is a sci-fi special effects film that is not interested spectacle (The Guardian called it the anti-Avatar).

Yes, but what’s the link between the two? Well, I guess that’s complex. But, in short, there is a relationship between spectacle and story. In a visual storytelling medium such as film or theatre, stories are entangled with spectacular effects but are not coextensive with them. In other words, the spectacular does not merely illustrate a story, it generates another dimension within a story. And, in Monsters the opposite occurs, in removing the focus from sequences of spectacular special effects literally Edwards made the space for a different story to be told. And (to riff on McCallum’s invocation of Barrie Kosky for a moment) in Kosky’s spectacularly excessive theatre, his desire to construct particular images or spectacular states seems to change the story that he wants to tell; from his metamorphosing of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in The Lost Echo to his unique setting of the storm in King Lear. John Bell’s reflection on Kosky’s tendency to take flight from the text in his Memoir is a good illustration of the effect of what happens to story when you’re interested in the spectacular, “He was not particularly interested in the precise meaning of the text, more in what images the text threw up, or in his subjective reactions to those images. We had to watch out that he didn’t misinterpret the meaning of an entire speech in order to make a visual statement.”[1]

What is at stake, therefore, is nothing less what a story can mean. While John Bell may have thought it was a bad thing for Kosky to miss the point of Lear, reimagining the classics is not a new thing (it was done to Lear in 1681 when it was turned into a romantic comedy, and it was done by Shakespeare in the first place). What a turn toward spectacular does for McCallum, or away from the spectacular does for Edwards and, what either/or could do for an audience, is reinvigorate the respective medium’s capacity for engagement in a world beyond the theatre or cinema. McCallum’s argument for a spectacular theatre is neo-Brechtian in the sense that he does not want happy-clappy audiences sitting passively demanding to be entertained and leave contented. He wants the audience to be remade by their experience in the theatre, and it was his argument that an avante-garde spectacular theatre can achieve this by means of jolting an audience out of his or her seat [2]. Further, (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) in Monsters, rather than a focus on a spectacle that radically re-enforces a fear of otherness and a trust in Military force, by turning away from spectacle Monsters in fact critiques the social and politic norms upon which many sci-fi films are built, it becomes a celebration of otherness and critique of such force.[3]

While none of what McCallum said or Edwards did was totally original, such revolutions in form have come before, why have they done it now? It struck me as oddly serendipitous that I should sit through that lecture and that film on the same day. Not because I rarely go to lectures or films, but that the two should speak to each other in such strikingly complimentary ways. Is this the zeitgeist? Does this foreshadow the revolution? Well, possibly not, but if McCallum’s cries for complexity and difficulty are heard, and if Edwards film makes enough at the box office to inspire others to go out and tell a simple story with a laptop and a couple of keen actors, then perhaps audiences will also change their ways. Then, we can reclaim spectacle from the mainstream, for the purposes of radically re-imagining the world. Then, we can reclaim narrative from the grips of moral and social norms. And then, we might have a revolution on our hands.


[1] Bell The Time of my Life p.262

[2] I think that another obstacle here is audience cynicism and apathy. I recall people reflecting on the “clichéd” use of shit and blood by Kosky during the Bacchae section of The Lost Echo, and after Monsters yesterday I overheard one audience member talking about the heavy-handedness of some of the dialogue. Cynicism, enlightened false consciousness, OR, a predisposition to respond how one thinks they should respond rather than trying to keep their response related to how they actually do, is an unfortunate side effect of a university educated middle-class.

[3] This is a bit clean, District 9 critiques military bureaucracy and is massively spectacular but there is other otherness in Monsters that is given breathing space by virtue of the relief we get from special effects, such as mexican guerilla’s in the infected zone that turn out to be really nice men that also go against the standard representation.

 


Two Plays at the Old Fitz

I used to work for Tamarama Rock Surfers at the Old Fitz, and since my last project there finished up in late April, I’ve found it difficult to go back for a casual visit. I think my reluctance to return is analogous to not wanting to see an ex-partner for a little while; after a long relationship and difficult break-up, you generally need to wait some time before you see each other again. So, on Sunday I went to the Old Fitz and, no, we didn’t end up shagging in a vain attempt to relive the glory days, but the company was fine and the coffee was quite good. I mean that all quite literally, I was even given a warm cup of coffee from Kym Vercoe during the performance of Seven Kilomemetres North East on Sunday night.

SEVEN KILOMETRES NORTH EAST: Kym Vercoe & Version 1.0, in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers (N.B. SPOILERS WITHIN)

SKNE is a devised work that responds to Vercoe’s three trips to  Bosnia and the Balkans. And, in particular, her stays at the Višegrad Spa Hotel, near Višegrad on the River Drina. SKNE is a devised one-woman performance that is part personal travelogue, part political-history lesson that combines monologue and audio-visual footage in a hybrid-narrative performance. The monlogue and performance is very polished and all AV went off smoothly, in trademark Version 1.0 style, demonstrating just how AV can and should be done in the theatre. The video footage, all of which was taken on Vercoe’s most recent trip to Bosnia, was successfully drawn into the narrative and made an integral part of the storytelling.

SKNE is a piece about the complex relationship between the tourist (Vercoe) and the place she visits (Bosnia/Višegrad). We learn a cool new word, “thano-tourism”. This issue is really interesting; “thanotourism” is travelling to a place with a history of death and trauma. Naming such an activity instantly makes it easier to question why we go to places like Auschwitz or The Killing Fields, and what it means to visit such a place. In short, why do we choose to be thanotourists? Vercoe, we discover, is the “accidental thanotourist”. That is, she went to a location unaware of the specifics of its violent past. Seven Kilometres North East is an attempt to comprehend her experience as an “accidental thanotourist”.

I really like the brief: rather than a piece that works to demonstrate the complex relationship between past and present, and the always already problematic nature of tourism,  SKNE takes such entanglements as its point of departure. This is rich ground for a performance piece. I really like the set of questions the performance seeks to illuminate and explore: when we discover we are holidaying and enjoying ourselves on a site of genocide how can we respond? What can we do, if anything? What should we do, if anything? What do we do, if anything? How is the past implicated in the present? And, more obliquely, how is the present implicated in the past?

But, as a creative response to this matrix of problems, I do not think this piece really worked. And, in this I am somewhat alone, there is wide consensus that this is an excellent work of theatre. But it is because of the general affirmitve responses directed towards the work that I feel somewhat less afraid to get a bit more critical about it.

The entire performance was built upon Vercoe’s emotional response to the situation she ends up in: “Seven Kilometres North East” of Višegrad is the site of Višegrad Spa Hotel which was the site of mass atrocity. I want to go out on a limb and claim that the piece didn’t work for me because Vercoe’s own emotional response, especially really powerful emotions like guilt and shame, were not fully explored. And conversely, the specifics of the history were somewhat elided. This is important because it this piece attempts to link up the history of the place she visits with Vercoe’s emotional response to discovering that history. As a result, I read the central narrative outcome of the performance itself as a somewhat reductive substitution of the performer’s guilt at enjoying herself in Višegrad, for moral outrage at what happened. This emotional sleight of hand undoubtedly unlocks the personal paralysis caused by guilt, but what does it leaves us with? A feeling? An emotion? Or a rhetorical question: “why do people rape and kill each other?” Moral outrage doesn’t communicate the complexity of the problem the performer was trying to articulate. And, I would argue, it likewise does not get traction on her role, if any, within it.

The list of questions I traced above above seem pertinent here, in such a situation what can we do? what do we want to do? what should we do? and what do we do? are all different dimensions of a response, and, although the questions look very similar, I reckon real answers are likely to look very different. For instance, we can try and find the people responsible and bring them to justice, but maybe we want to go have a beer and stare at the river. For me, Seven Kilometres North East tried to pretend that what we can, should, want to and do do in a situation like this are the same, and, I felt that the performance was didactic in  that in the end it forced me to feel that way too.

Having said this, the emotional king hit of the ending (and I felt it to be sure), certainly made me think through why I was somewhat disinterested in the travelogue section of the piece and why I ended up with no real particular detail about what did happen in the past, but why I felt sad for both Vercoe and the women who were raped and murdered in the hotel. The piece was forced me to feel what she felt. And in this the piece is incredibly successful, which is a real achievement. But to really entangle the personal and the historical, a more rigorous excavation of the personal and the historical than what was undertaken by Seven Kilometres North East.

Still, it’s taken a while for me to articulate all this, so it is not a superficial piece. It is doing complex things, but from my point of view I would like them done differently. In closing, regardless of what I think, SKNE definitely worth a look.

Seven Kilometres North East is on at the Old Fitz until Saturday 16th October. Tickets available at rocksurfers.org

ANOTHER SPECIES ENTIRELY: Friends with Deficits

Well, in comparison to Seven Kilometres North East, Another Species Entirely really was really another species entirely. 30 minutes of strange things being done with fruit, vegetables, wine and locks of hair. Friends with Deficits are an emerging performance collective who want to perform together, according to their program, ‘until the grow old and wrinkly’. And I hope they do, I’d really like to see where their work ends up. This particular piece, which I assume is unfinished, defies clear description. It seems to be about friendship and intimacy, drinking wine and being cantankerous. I would claim there was a radical feminist sensibility locked deep within the piece, but perhaps I like to think everything does, and certainly I couldn’t claim to know precisely the nature of this collective’s sensibility anyway. It was non-narrative, it involved hair and white stockings and it ended abruptly, with the audience not knowing it was done until one performer, in a gesture too natural to be scripted, came out from under a sheet and said “we were going to wait until you were all gone, but I’m getting hot under here”.

The Late Sessions at the Fitz, I know from having worked there, is all about new work getting air time in order to develop further. So, to conclude this woefully inadequate reflection on Another Species Entirely, my suggestions are that 1) someone needs to put the pineapple down their stockings, everyone I spoke to was waiting for it, and 2) the show needs to be longer, we all thought it was over but we all hoped it wasn’t. I’m gonna stay tuned for the next installment.

Another Species Entirely was only on for two nights. They have another gig coming up at Art and About on October 21. Details on Facebook

TRANSPORTI had actually been around the WORLD on Sunday. I went on the “Keep it Wheel” bike ride and VegPledge for the 350.org global action day. Keep it Wheel was a well organised bikeride that was basically designed to reassure shop owners that “cyclists are consumers too”, in response to the panicked business owners who instigated class action suit against City of Sydney for damages brought about by its major bike lane project. VegPledge was a picnic in centennial park where we all posed for the camera and didn’t eat meat. Two really cool events. So, I rode from Newtown to Surry Hills to Pyrmont to Centennial Park to Woolloomooloo to Newtown. And, while I won’t describe the route in gory detail, it was easy and fun!


Once Under a Sky

Two women, two raincoats, a bucket, some puddles, the desert and the sea.

The Newtown Theatre is a space that I’ve been to a few times, I like going there (close to home, cool foyer, friendly/unpretentious, unnaturally spongy chairs) but I’ve never liked what I’ve seen there. This is by no means a reflection upon everything that is produced in the space; but of the shamefully few things that I have seen there, I have not been inspired to return in a hurry. Once Under a Sky comes some way to changing my tune about this.

Seasoned physical theatre performers Freya Sant and Kate Sherman, teamed up with director Michael Pigott and devised the work Once Under a Sky. It is a story about two fisherwomen, and this story is told in the time it takes to find a good fishing spot. But it is much more than that. It is a personal history. It is a story of two outsiders. It is a story about co-dependence and love, in ways similar to A Tiny Chorus. It is dream-like: space and time seem stable, but are not. In all this, Once Under a Sky has the potential to be an amazing adventure. But, I don’t think it is a finished work yet.

To reflect honestly upon my experience: this was a Fringe production, and I really felt the limitations of the Fringe format when I saw this show. Some performances are like Tents, easy to put up and down, ideal for the Fringe. Others are not. I think Once Under a Sky looks like a Tent but, to extend this terrible analogy, it is actually more like a Kit Home: more difficult to construct and more permanent than you might think. I’m sure the performers are aware of this. It is a simple story, but I wanted less simple lighting. Also, I was not sure if there needed to be a set, but I am also not sure if the space should be black. I wished the sound provided more of something … but it’s not really my place to suggest what that “something” is. But if I was in the business of suggesting, I would say I also loved the points at which action would be paused and a narrator would come and describe the history, especially when it placed these two girls/women in a more concrete social context. But this didn’t happen very often. I felt the overall story could benefit from a more carefully constructed metanarrative. In short, I wanted more from this world under the sky than this particular incarnation of Once Under a Sky could give me.

Having said this, it was amazing how much of the story did actually work in the Fringe (as a Tent!) without all the benefits of a full production (a Kit Home). The performers really know how to infuse a blank space with meaning. They played absurdly with scale (who knew a spit ball and the sea could have the same function?), they created remarkably labour-intensive props for single moments (a person-sized, presumably hand-knitted, bag!), and created a meaningful and complex relationship between the two characters who at times seemed almost like strangers and at other times the seemed almost like lovers. In short: if the Fringe Production was designed as a tester to see if it should be developed further, I’d say the answer to that is unequivocally “yes”.

TRANSPORT: I live shamefully close to The Newtown Theatre, relative to the amount of times i’ve attended the space. Basically, I rode to The Hub. 30 seconds from my house. And rode down King St for about 1.5 minutes. Stopping at the Pastizzi Cafe for Pastizzi (don’t forget to order their special tomato sauce with your Pastizzi) for 5 minutes. Then rode on to the Newtown Theatre. 1 minute. The journey from door to door, including an eat-in-dinner 8 minutes. As I have never said before, but I will say it again, two wheels are much better than none.


A Tiny Review

A Tiny Chorus is an example of how, in the right hands, a series of simple drama games can be linked together in a simple, meaningful sequence (a narrative) in order to produce a beautiful story. Generally it takes me much longer to get to the point of a review. But this one, I don’t need to. Also, I don’t want to, because the subtle element of surprise is key to one’s experience of A Tiny Chorus. Any more praise it might look like I was being paid off by a canny producer, any more description might spoil the experience. I will add, however, that there is a good reason why it won an audience award at Melbourne Fringe, and good reason why it was nominated for several awards in Adelaide. I think there is a good reason why it was part of a special select program for the Sydney Fringe. Herein lies the point: there are many good reasons to go and see A Tiny Chorus.

A Tiny Chorus plays until September 25 at CarriageWorks. This is a review of the performance on Thursday 16th September, 2010.

TRANSPORT: I walked in the wind from Bedford St, down Wilson St, to CarriageWorks. I walked with my mother. We went to see A Tiny Chorus on the first anniversary of my father’s death.


La Cantatrice Chauve – Théâtre de la Huchette

A middle class English interior, with English armchairs. An English evening. Mr Smith, an Englishman, seated in his English armchair and wearing English slippers, is smoking his English pipe and reading an English newspaper, near an English fire. He is wearing English spectacles and a small gray English mustache. Beside him, in another English armchair, Mrs. Smith, an Englishwoman, is darning some English socks. A long moment of English silence. the English clock strikes 17 English strokes.                                                                             – Opening stage directions of The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco

the theatre where the original productions of two of Ionesco's plays have been playing for the last 53 years

On the 8th September I saw Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano (AKA The Bald Primadonna, AKA La Cantarice Chauve) – An Antiplay, en Francais, at Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. There is some irony, surely, in an Anglo-Australian Shakespeare scholar seeing a play in French, that is effectively a clever parody of both the English theatre, in form, and of English relationships, in content. Sitting in the small theatre space, with my perfectly Colonial manners, ready to enjoy a polite evening at the theatre only to have my Colonial heritage and scholarly pursuits entirely undermined in a foreign tongue. But, it was fun!

While I planned to attend the play, I didn’t work out until many hours afterwards, in the airport of a sub-fascist state, exactly what I had attended. I spent the hour beforehand reading the English version of the play in the bookstore around the corner. But I didn’t comprehend that this production of the play was the original production, and that this production had been playing consistently since 1957. It was not until I checked the internet at Changi airport two days later that I found out what I had seen.

I reckon I was given three opportunities to properly comprehend what I was seeing. Firstly, at the bookstore one of the ladies mentioned something vaguely about how these plays had been on for years but, because she had not been to the theatre to see the plays herself, the details were very fuzzy. Secondly, I noticed out the front of the theatre that it said ’53 ANS’ in big letters (see picture above). I know that ‘ans’ is ‘years’ in French. But I thought that it was more than likely that these plays were written that long ago, and from this I deduced that French tradition was to let everyone know the vintage of the playtext on the sign outside the theatre. For all I knew the production of Une Tempete opening in Paris the night after I left may have had ’399 ANS’ up on a sign outside the theatre. But, no, I didn’t actually ask anyone to verify anything. I just assumed my completely bogus thoughts were completely right. Oddly, the set itself, which is still the same as it was in the original production back in 1957, didn’t do anything to confirm or deny my vague impression of what I was actually seeing. The old-fashionedness of the aesthetic*  probably gave me a third opportunity to connect the dots between what I thought I was doing and what I was actually doing. But, I failed. I continued to be a vague tourist, placing all my trust in Paris, believing it would be just intelligible enough to navigate without the need of any real effort on my part. Which it was, sort of. I sort of got it. I sort of got around. I sort of understood the play, and partially understood the kind of experience I was having.

Regardless of my back-to-front understanding of what I did, if you go to Paris, I highly recommend going to the bookstore, reading the play, and then popping around the corner to see it en Francais. It’s a fun thing to do, it’s a really, really funny play, and the performances are wonderfully stylised. Furthermore, the modest 85-seat theatre provides a drastic change from the monumental-grand historical-gold plated-stone monoliths that house everything else one might usually see when they spend three days in Paris.

*The set was of a style at home on the stages of a rural NSW production of The Mikado, trompe-l’oeil flats, painted to look like ornate domestic walls. Oh, how I am waiting for a canny designer to bring back trompe-l’oeil backdrops in all their seventeenth century glory.


There’s a fine line between voyeurism and surveillance

Measure for Measure is the second play I’ve seen in a week in which a character spontaneously springs into a headstand. The headstand is one of the key inversions in yoga. In Cageling, the headstand occurs when Mother Alba is struggling to contain her own desire and, incidentally, this yields the upside down penis I alluded to in my last post. In Benedict Andrews’ production of Measure for Measure, Barnadine the drunken prisoner, played by a very brutish looking Colin Moody, stands on his head at the end of an excellently staged drunken rampage. In both instances, the headstand is symbolic of the world being in chaos, but it is not true chaos. The posture represents inversion, but in yoga this is the inversion of an intensely disciplined body. Thus the chaos in both instances, I think, seems to remain within the strict disciplined worlds in which these characters exist.

This paradox of disciplined chaos makes sense in a play like Measure for Measure. Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”; meaning, in part, that although it is funny, it’s not really a comedy. The tension between the humour that is in the script, and the fact that all is not necessarily well, even if it ends well, is sustained throughout this production. This is most evident in the character of Lucio, played by Toby Schmitz, whose wry and sleazy asides, rouge-like metatheatrical commentary, and accidental heresy are a constant source of humour in the play. Schmitz is perfectly cast as Lucio, in a role that arguably functions like the Fool in Lear or Feste in Twelfth Night, and his grasp of the comedic nuances in the dialogue is remarkably clever. However, the achievement of Schmitz’s performance, which is perfectly restrained by Andrews’ direction, is that our laughter never actually disarms of the dramatic action.  We laugh at a situation, but remain conscious of its more serious implications, the sinister and hypocritical underbelly of the State. The way Andrews’ harnesses the “problem” of the play, is one of the highlights of this production.

Here’s the central premise. Duke Vincentio takes leave of the his post, only to return disguised as a Friar where he can observe the workings of the stage from another perspective. In his absence, Angelo is given power and almost immediately he orders the execution of a young man, Claudio, for having sex out of wedlock. Claudio’s sister Isabella then spends the rest of the play trying to save her brother’s life. Angelo gives Isabella an intensely hypocritical ultimatum, give me your virginity and I’ll give you your brother.

The play is about power and desire. It was first performed at the start of the seventeenth century, and grimly foreshadows the imminent Puritan rule, where the repression of desire was the major political platform and all the theatres were closed. But, this production is set in the present, in a snazzy hotel room. Ralph Myers’ set is perfectly generic; the bed is made with shiny beige quilted coverlet, light pink carpet, blonde wood furniture, 12volt dichroic down lights, bar fridge complete with mini-canned coke and a vase of oriental lillies (that Lucio will eventually “deflower”) sits nicely on the TV Table. Each scene is always plausibly in a different room, because all hotel rooms are the same (what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls the “non-place”). The could-be-anywhere hotel room seems to function especially well during prison scenes and sex scenes. It is especially sinister during scenes in the prison, where, like scenes out of some dodgy Hollywood hostage drama, the hotel room seems to function plausibly make-shift hold for hostages, and suitably seedy in sex scenes where it may be a room rented for only an hour. The nicest touch in the set is the medium-sized plasma TV, playing the weather channel for the most part, with the occasional flick through to a wildlife documentary, porn or Court TV. The play is about power and desire today, Porn TV and Court TV.

Screens are the key feature of this production, which is filmed by cameramen onstage, and a on a series of well-placed security cameras in the roof and behind the bathroom mirror. What is remarkable is how quickly this style presentation of Shakespeare in the theatre naturalises. You adapt to watching really quickly. The content is broadcast on two large screens which are mounted on the back walls of the stage. Just as audiences these days like to choose, the audience at this production can choose to watch the action live or watch it on screen. And in this a very very blurry line is created between the voyeuristic pleasure in watching sex on screen, and the regulative force of surveillance. This mirrors the porn/court TV on the plasma, doubles again in relation the play’s broad thematic concerns of power and desire.

At the centre of all this, as always, are the poor virgins and whores, the only two career choices for women in the play. Isabella, played by Robin McLeavy, is beautifully tragic as the model of virtue, whose virtue is at the heart of the drama and used as the measure of the value of her brother’s life. In fact, the whole cast is excellent in supporting this complex and contradictory tragi-comedy.

Andrews’ production is deeply intellectual, evidenced by the Zizek and Agamben quoted in the program, but also in the complex layering of design components to support his interpretation of the play. But, even with this intensely considered theoretical underbelly, the production is remarkably accessible and represents the theory in ways that are legible to a large audience. Shakespeare was a popular writer, we always have to remind ourselves of that because he occupies such a revered position in the western canon. Andrews’ production blends the popular roots of Shakespeare with deep academic complexity, the “low” works with the “high” (as if the two are ever really distinct anyway), resulting in an entertainingly sinister, and near-perfect production of this under-performed problem play.

This is an unofficial review of the performance on Saturday 26th June, 2pm

Measure for Measure plays at Upstairs Belvoir until July 25

TRANSPORT:

I rode to Belvoir on the lovely winter afternoon. From Newtown, along Wilson St and along the path on Cleveland. So quick. 15 mins or something. I went the wrong way up Belvoir St to save time, which is illegal but satisfyingly steep. Belvoir does not have enough bicycle parking out the front. I don’t know if there is hidden parking elsewhere, but there are just a couple of signposts to tie your bike up to. Come the revolution, this will not be able to accommodate all the City’s cyclists, so hopefully City of Sydney will remedy this dearth of bike racks sometime in the near future.


The upside down penis

Go bring the rabble, / O’er whom I give thee power, here to this place - Prospero (to Ariel), The Tempest, Act IV, scene one

THE RABBLE have been brought to CarriageWorks to present Cageling. Cageling is a physical exploration of the repression of grief and desire, set in an enclosed box with a perspex wall facing the audience, two seamless white walls on the sides, and a wall with a high window at the rear. When you enter the space, you are met with a cast of five. They are all in the box, wearing floor-length, black, Victorian, gothic dresses and black ballet slippers. They are lit with fluorescent lights, and arranged in an unsettling tableau. They are there as if waiting for the audience, but very little happens for the first fifteen minutes. Cageling is designed to leave you outside, distanced from the action inside this home, and it takes effort on the part of the audience to find a way into this private world. This is almost in complete contrast to the the last thing I saw in Bay 20, Matt Prest and Claire Britton’s Hole in the Wall in which you are literally invited inside the home. But, although you are left outside Cageling’s cage, if you are actively willing to find a way inside, you’ll be rewarded.

THE RABBLE are not controlled by Prospero, or Shakespeare for that matter, but they are controlled by another formidable magician, Fredericio Garcia Lorca. Cageling’s urtext is Lorca’s play The House of Bernada Alba, a drama about a recently widowed mother, who controls her grief by dominating her children. This play is “smashed open” by THE RABBLE, and rearranged through the use of ballet, contemporary dance and hymn, and enhanced by stories from Ovid, thereby exposing the unconscious, affective underbelly of the Lorca’s text. But, we keep the mother and daughters and Dan Schlusser is terrifyingly good as Mother Alba.

Mother’s rules are no weeping and no secrets. A tension is established at the outset of the work between desire and action; if you do not act, you do not desire, and you do not grieve, if you do not cry. The flawed theory, of course, is that grief and desire will disappear if they can’t find expression, therefore as long as order is kept, tears are avoided, hierarchies are respected and instructions are followed everything will be OK. But, everything is clearly not OK. Within this world the only actions Mother allows are carefully choreographed: the poised movements of ballet and the perfectly harmonised hymn. Cageling dramatises the Daughters/sons’ attempts to break free from these rules, and the Mother/father’s attempt to reinstate them. And, I use the word “dramatises” with all its conventional import in spite of the lack of the dramatic text. And I say Daughter/son, Mother/father because gender difference necessarily unclear because the work is about women without men, but who have internalised the patriarchal structure. (Actually, Women without Men by Shirin Neshat that played in the recent Sydney Film Festival, has some interesting affinities with Cageling)

There are so many dimensions to this performance, and this is because THE RABBLE put to use all the tools available to the performing artist–speech, song, silence, movement, tableau, dance, costume, gesture, vocal tone, makeup, properties, set,  lighting, sound–THE RABBLE treat each aspect of the artform with equivalent importance, no element dominates, each device in turn contributing to Cageling’s emotional and physical assault.

Cageling is extraordinary, it deserves much more time that I can give it here to unfold the dark matter that is explored in the white box. Cageling requires your active attention, I think the audience are given many ways in; the sound design, dance lighting and speech all had a refrain. If you miss those clues or willingly resist the offers, you might be literally left out in the cold. But, I love difficult theatre, I like being made to work to find meaning, I love work where meaning keeps emerging for days later and there are too many threads to possibly consolidate in one short review. For example, I didn’t even get mention the headstand and the upside down penis, so, perhaps the upside down penis can be your reward if you are willing to involve yourself in Cageling.

Cageling plays at CarriageWorks until July 3

This is an unofficial review of the Preview Performance on June 24.

TRANSPORT:

I managed to get back on my bike again yesterday. The rain abated. I rode from UNSW to CarriageWorks, the ride is so easy. Bike paths almost all the way along Anzac Parade, and I get to go along one of my favourite paths in Sydney–a cresent moon shaped path that cuts between Cleveland st and South Dowling–then down Redfern St, past Redfern Station, left onto Little Eveleigh St which turns into Wilson, and bam, you’re at Carriageworks. I go the slow way, there is a quicker way through the industrial estates of Alexandria, but I like the slower pace, mostly off the road.


Bang

Bang is a play about terrorism. But, it’s not just about terrorism, it is also about relations between Australia and the Middle East, Christianity, Islam and Secularism, and about the complexities of right and wrong, the complexities of storytelling, more generally, and the complexities of telling stories about terrorism, more specifically. First up, I must say, is good to see a story about terrorism that is at all complex.

Formally reminiscent of Gavin’s award-winning earlier work, A Moment on the Lips, that premiered at the Old Fitz in early 2005 (I think!?), Bang is thematically more ambitious; Gavin takes on global religious conflict, rather than a women’s dinner party. If I had to glibly reduce Gavin’s years of hard work to a pithy phrase i’d say that Bang is Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul “meets” the film Crash (the “other” crash, i.e. not the Ballard/Cronenberg/Spader film). It is a play about the relationship between here and there (similar to Kushner’s work) and follows the multiple threads of human narrative that are drawn together (or blown apart) by a tragic and violent event (like Crash).

I respect the conceptual ambition of the play text. At the level of the script it is an intelligent articulation of the different spatial and temporal scales of complexity of contemporary terrorism–local, national, global, cultural, religious, generational–and how they all intersect; the personal is entangled in the global (and all things in between). At the level of production, these complexities are remarkably well sustained by director (Kim Hardwick) and the multiple roles are simply endowed and plausibly realised by the talented cast even in such a small space like Downstairs Belvoir.

Blazey Best and Ivan Donato are superb in what I think is the central thread of the narrative web, the Turkish-Australian brother and sister at the heart of the bangs in the play. Their story is counter-balanced by the anglo-mother and father, played by Caroline Brazier and Damian Rice, also who are at the centre of Bang’s bangs, for different reasons.

I think herein lies where my criticism of the play lies. There is an unborn baby that is integral to the mother-father narrative thread, that dominates the second act. I recognise the dramatic cache in the unborn baby story, but I always struggle to sustain serious interest when the unborn baby’s role is an extensive feature of a dramatic relationship. Although I imagine it operates as one of the strongest emotional threads of this drama for many in the audience, for me the unborn baby element was drawn out and possibly the weakest element in Gavin’s dramatic web. I think, possibly this is a point i’d like to talk more about, I think it may have worked if it was performed differently, but can’t go on so without spoiling the play too much, so I’ll let it rest.

My gripe about the production itself seems petty, but I want to make it anyway. I recognise too that this is possibly a feature of a tight budget, but I found the costumes, which invoked a kind of east-meets-west theme, hybrid middle-eastern flowing linens with the western department-store poly-cotton seams and hems, oddly distracting. I understood the concept, but I don’t know if the costumes needed to mirror the cultural complexities of the play’s central theme.

I might add, through the process of writing this, the more I try and write about it the more I like the play, because the play seems to become more interesting the more I think about it. This is the mark of good writing. Bang is a play that dramatises our cultural anxieties and worst fears and makes them complex and interesting. Ultimately, I think I like the play more than the production, but it is a very engaging night at the theatre anyway.

Bang plays until the 4th July, 2010 at Downstairs Belvoir

This is an unofficial review of the performance on Tuesday 22nd, June

TRANSPORT:

I couldn’t ride my bike to Belvoir last night, the rain came down just as I was planning to leave. I had by pannier bag with me. Although it is cumbersome and bright yellow, it sort-of unconvincingly doubles as handbag. But, Belvoir is easily reached by public transport and I caught the bus to central and walked in the rain from Eddy Avenue. Ate dinner at Abdul’s on Elizabeth beforehand (FYI Abdul’s has possibly the best Baba Ganouj in Sydney). Then, I went to the old tomato sauce factory to watch Jonathan Gavin’s new play Bang.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 245 other followers